Is traditionally milled flour worth paying extra for?
If you knew there was a traditional grain miller whose flour was available at a local store, at around twice the price of the industrial roller milled flour you buy at the supermarket, would you pay the extra? We’re living in a time where everyone - bankers excluded - is feeling the pinch of a shrunken economy, job uncertainty and higher prices. So, is flour milled the traditional way an essential part of good baking for you or just a fancy pants extravagance for the overpaid?
Milled flour from Golspie Mill, Sutherland, Scotland. Image credit: Dan Lepard
If you look at the Google map baker Andrew Forbes has put together you’ll see that a fair number of us in Britain live within driving distance of a wind or water mill. These corn mills - ‘corn’ is the traditional word for grain - are typically powered from a running stream, and through a series of complex cogs and wheels driving a large gritty stone that rotates slowly and turns the whole grain into flour. Whereas for roller milling, the way most of our supermarket flour is produced, the oil-rich wheatgerm and bran is usually removed first, and then electrically powered rollers grind the flour at high speed. This means flour is milled quickly contributing to its lower price.
Water mill at Golspie Mill, Sutherland, Scotland. Image credit: Dan Lepard
Roller milled flour is often imported and sometimes blended from different batches, even though that isn’t mentioned on the label; whereas traditional cornmillers are simply the source: what goes in the top on the stone comes out into the bag you buy. It is possible to buy wholemeal roller milled flour, the sort you typically see at the supermarkets, but the components need to be recombined: the bran and germ ground separately and added back to the white flour.
Now my work makes me the worst person to ask, “Is it worth it?” I’m never short of flour, get given samples often, and to be honest have a deep unbridled respect and admiration for the traditional cornmillers around the world who live relatively meekly and work hard. But I like to think that if my life were to change then spending extra on flour would be a small price to pay for better flavour in my baking.
Weighing up the options
To be fair there are strengths and arguable weaknesses to both flour types. Stone ground flour always has a darker colour and stronger bran flavour: perfect if you’re making a rustic bread loaf or dark crumbed cake, while pound cakes and scones become an “acquired taste”. The crumb structure becomes coarser and heavier, again good when that’s what you want: a chocolate brownie or a soft cookie benefits from extra density, while sponge cakes often loose lightness and delicacy. White béchamel sauce becomes brown sauce, and shortbread takes on a rich bran flavour paired with a dull beige colour.
In favour of roller milled flour you have the lightest textured breads and cakes that can look superb. As roller milled white flours are especially refined, containing very little bran, they produce very elastic dough compared to stonemilled flour. This tempts many bakers who like to call themselves ‘artisans', as the dough from roller milled flour is very forgiving. Yet to depend entirely on it makes a mockery of their artisan ideals.
Do you use traditionally milled flour in your baking? Or if you know of an artisan flour provider in your area, let us know.
Dan Lepard is a food writer for the Guardian and a baking expert.